Materiality, monsters and menstruation: introducing Bettina Bildhauer

The Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research will host their 4th Annual Congress online from 21-23 April 2021. The Polyphony is delighted to publish interviews with all four keynote speakers in the build-up to the Congress. This week Congress organiser Ruben Verwaal talks to Professor Bettina Bildhauer (School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews).

Ruben Verwaal writes:

The organising committee of NNMHR Congress 2021 is thrilled to have Bettina Bildhauer as keynote speaker. Professor Bildhauer researches both our physical or bodily limits and the limits of our humanity. What counts as human? She studies this question of embodied identity by focusing on blood, materiality, monsters, and menstruation in the Global Middle Ages. In addition to writing numerous articles and editing special collections, she published Medieval Blood (2006), Filming the Middle Ages (2011), and Medieval Things (2020). In 2020 Bildhauer was awarded Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in recognition of her entire academic record to date.

But who is Bettina? What was her student experience like and why did she specialise in medieval blood? In this interview we like to introduce Bettina Bildhauer by asking her to reflect upon her career so far.

We are very grateful to Bettina for participating in this interview. In fact, we were a little wary of asking her for this interview on top of delivering a keynote speech. When we first asked her in January 2021, we knew that Bettina was already managing home-schooling alongside her full workload. Still, she was happy to comply and gave very spontaneous and honest answers. “I must be in an oversharing mood, because I never get to talk to anyone in lockdown anymore.” Enjoy the interview and we hope to welcome you at her plenary session during this year’s Congress.

RV: Where did you study and how has this shaped you?

BB: I did my first degree in English Philology, German Philology and Art History in Cologne. It shaped me in that it was a very unpressured learning environment, as there were no fees and no set number of years in which to finish your degree (I know!). Cologne was a fun place for becoming an adult, finding jobs, flats and relationships. I had my first encounters with feminism and medieval literature while studying in Cologne. I then came to Cambridge as an ERASMUS student and felt I had entered paradise. My year abroad shaped my love for daring thinking, for change, for a sense of history and for the UK.

RV: Why did you decide to specialise in medieval blood and monsters?

BB: I did my PhD on blood because I was interested in feminist theories of embodiment and had noticed that blood kept coming up in my reading and lectures on medieval literature, law, philosophy and Christian religion, in knightly battles, the eucharist, the passion, ethnicity, nobility and kinship [1]. I’ve always thought that there must be a deeper reason why I was attracted to that topic, but I still haven’t found it. Monstrosity was more of side line. My friend Bob Mills, who studied violence, and I had organised a conference on medieval horror, but monstrosity was the topic that finally attracted a publisher [2]. There was some great work on monsters coming out of disability and transgender studies at the time, thinking about who and what is excluded from being able to claim fully human status.

RV: What’s your most memorable moment in academia?

BB: One moment in three decades? Probably the moment the air fizzed when I met my future wife typing furiously in our school office. The moment when I first read Parzival [3] in bed in my grandparents’ house and could not believe how utterly crazy and beautiful it was. The moment when I read that Professor Dietz Bering had really read and liked my coursework dissertation. The moment when I had given a paper on anti-Semitism and an audience member questioned if I as a German should do that.

RV: Looking back at your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?

BB: If anything, I think I should take advice from my younger self. I don’t think I know anything now that she didn’t know already.

RV: What three emotions would best describe how you feel about presenting at the NNMHR 2021 Congress?

BB: Honoured, frustrated, empowered.

RV: What book or article in our field do you think is really a must-read?

BB: Recently I was impressed with Monica Green’s “The Four Black Deaths” [4]. She’s been a pioneer in studies of medieval medicine, and here uses her historical knowledge of the Mongol Empire together with new genetic evidence about the mutations of the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague to propose a new theory on how it spread. No prizes for guessing why it resonated with me.

RV: What will your keynote be about?

BB: About the persistence of misogynistic patterns of constructing bodies as gendered: men as the norm, and women as leaking blood, which they then have to hide while men exchange secret knowledge about it. I’ll know more, soon, now that home-schooling is over and I’ll get a minute to write it.

*****

For more information about Bettina Bildhauer’s keynote and the Northern Network for Medical Humanities 4th Annual Congress 2021, please visit https://nnmhr2021.org.

Notes

[1] Bildhauer, Bettina. ‘Blood in Thirteenth-Century German Literature.’ PhD Doctoral Thesis, University of Cambridge, 2002.

[2] Bildhauer, Bettina, and Robert Mills, eds. The Monstrous Middle Ages. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003.

[3] The poem Parzival is a medieval romance by the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach in Middle High German.

[4] Green, Monica H. ‘The Four Black Deaths.’ The American Historical Review 125 (2020): 1601–1631.

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